The Sustaining Power of DC’s Alumni Leadership Mission

NEXTDC 3By Carly Schildhaus

When you’re going on a leadership mission to Israel, there are a few things they tell you. First, they tell you to check the packing list and make sure you don’t pack more than you need. Second, they tell you that this is a different trip than Birthright was, but you have to experience it to understand it. Third, they encourage you to bring your experiences with you, but to be open to other opinions and ideas. All of this information came in preparation for my second trip to Israel in two years, this time on The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s NEXT DC Birthright Alumni Leadership Mission. This special trip is open to Birthright alumni who want to take the next step in expanding their leadership skill set, increase their knowledge about and love for Israel and are ready to take the next step in the local leadership journey.

What they don’t tell you as you prepare for this trip, is that you can think you’ve reached peak love for Israel, and then you go back with the right people and at the right time in your life, and you can fall more in love with the country than you ever thought possible. There is no other place in the world and no other time in my life that I’ve been so present, yet so easily able to access my past and consider my future.

My first trip to Israel was on the Federation’s DC Community Birthright trip in June of 2013. I had been avoiding it for years, even after hearing time and again how wonderful the experience had been for anyone who went. I told people I didn’t feel the connection, that there were places I wanted to go instead. The reality was that I was scared, because when I thought about it, my relationship with Judaism was complicated. I’d been pushing my Jewish identity away for years – why would I want to go to Israel?

That was my perspective until, at the urging of a DC Jewish community member, I decided to take a chance and go on Birthright Israel. It was more than I could have asked for – I made incredible friends, saw amazing sites and felt a connection to a country, to my personal history and to a global community. When I came back, I was inspired. For the first time that I could remember, I was proud to be Jewish, and I tried to find as many ways as possible to get involved when I returned. I served on committees, I shared my experience with anyone who asked (and a bunch who didn’t) and I started volunteering at the Holocaust Museum. But there was still a longing for a deeper connection to a place I’d just become acquainted with.

When the opportunity presented itself to apply for a spot on the 2015 NEXT DC Alumni Leadership Mission, there was no question in my mind that this was an endeavor I wanted – that I needed – to pursue. On the Alumni Leadership Mission, you get to take a deeper dive into a complex country, and you start to see the connections among the lessons you are learning in Israel and how you can apply these important perspectives and skills back home. There is no better setting to learn about leadership, Jewish identity and culture than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Our journey through Israel was packed with experiences that helped shape our understanding of leadership. We learned about leading from behind at Neot Kedumim, a Biblical land reserve, as we tried to figure out how to herd goats and sheep. We learned how to interact with people who communicate differently at Kapish Cafe, a restaurant in Jaffa that employs waiters who are hearing impaired. We started to understand Israel as the heart of innovation at Maoz Seal, an organization working towards enhancing and improving Israel’s ethical business practices.

Most impactful were the messages of inclusion and acceptance. On the Alumni Leadership Mission, we learned about the support that Israel has for all of its citizens, including the Special in Uniform program within the IDF, which allows people with special needs to take on roles within the army. We got to surf with the staff of Gal Sheli, an organization that works with at-risk teens to channel surfing into life lessons. We toured Lod and worked with Arab and Israeli children to complete a bicycle building challenge, seeing up close how cultural divides can sometimes be overcome with understanding and a common goal. We cooked a delicious meal in Jerusalem, bringing together Arab and Israeli flavors in a team environment of many leaders. And on Shabbat, we came together with more than 200 members of the DC Jewish community and shared an evening of singing, dancing and reflection.

During our trip, Federation’s Immediate Past President Liza Levy spoke to our group. She told us that “all it takes is one person to bring someone into the community by encouraging them to join.” I had my person to thank for encouraging me to go to Israel for the first time, and that was an incredibly influential experience. But equally important in my life today are those who continue to nourish and strengthen my connection to the Jewish community, and build for me the environment I have come to love. I’m overwhelmed by the generosity, by the connection and by the enthusiasm of the community. Your community – when you find it – will embrace you, will encourage you and will sustain you. That’s the power of surrounding yourself with the right people, which was the largest takeaway for those of us on this mission.

The NEXT DC Alumni Leadership Mission was a truly transformational experience for me. Each visit we went on presented me with a new way of thinking, a new way of applying my interests and passions for helping my community and a wider circle of knowledge about the incredibly meaningful and impactful work of my local Federation. I am now a more confident, knowledgeable and enthusiastic leader ready to take my place in my community to make a difference. I’m so excited to see what happens next.

Carly is originally from Long Island, which means she is obsessed with pizza and bagels and laments the fact that they are so inferior in DC. (It’s the water.) After four years of working in admissions at her two-time alma mater, The George Washington University, Carly is the newest Higher Education Consultant at The Advisory Board Company.

For more information about the NEXT DC Alumni Leadership Mission, contact Sarah Arenstein (sarah.arenstein@shalomdc.org) at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.